Believe it or not, Josef Stalin's henchman Vyacheslav Molotov, the man who signed the death warrants for 43,568 people, was a bookworm.
Molotov doesn't sound like much of a literary inspiration. His capacity for bureaucratic work earned him the nickname Old Stone Bottom, and a fellow Bolshevik once called him "the embodiment of grayness and servility." His very initials stood for capital punishment: In Russian, V.M., or vyshaya mera, means "highest measure, execution."
Yet in "Molotov's Magic Lantern," Rachel Polonsky uses the man and his library to construct a living panorama of historical, revolutionary and contemporary Russia.
Polonsky is a Russian specialist at the University of Cambridge. Her curious project began during the Russian debt crisis of 1998, when she found herself living in a Moscow apartment block formerly reserved for Soviet bigwigs. One floor up stood Molotov's old flat, then occupied by an American tenant who invited Polonsky to examine the contents of some old bookcases. She had stumbled on Molotov's library and the "magic lantern" of the title -- an early slide projector.
The projector inspired the form of the book, which flits between Russia's past and present through a cornucopia of impressions and reflections on the Czars, the Bolsheviks and Vladimir Putin. The approach lends her text the charm of a travelogue and the seriousness of historical essays.
Memories of the war against Adolf Hitler are everywhere. Polonsky travels to the ports of Murmansk and Archangel in the frozen north, where local historians are at last allowed to recognize that British convoys loaded with U.S. lend-lease goods and war materiel played a role in Russia's victory.
Elsewhere, she hears that the famous image of a Red Army soldier planting a Soviet flag on the ruined Reichstag in Berlin must have been doctored before publication because the soldier was wearing several looted watches. And who can hear the name Molotov without thinking of his "cocktails," the gasoline bombs Finnish soldiers hurled at Russian tanks during the war?
The public bathhouse, a Russian institution, gets a chapter to itself. In Czarist times, the dregs of the water used to steam-clean the wealthy was sluiced down to wash the poor below, Polonsky tells us. A more modern image that stays in the mind is of a naked Russian beauty with a Barbie-doll figure and a butterfly tattoo whom Polonsky saw, freshly whipped with birch switches, reclining and reading Oswald Spengler's profoundly depressing classic, "The Decline of the West."
Whatever her subject, Polonsky demonstrates that the smell of a country doesn't change; it lingers from one era to another. Russia is most fragrant in its literature, and Molotov's library inspires evocative passages about Anton Chekhov and the poet Osip Mandelstam.
Grumbling About Chekhov
Though a devotee of Chekhov and a collector of his first editions, Molotov grumbled that the Russian playwright had no optimism in him. There would have been even less if the writer of "The Cherry Orchard" had foreseen that odious thugs like Molotov and Stalin would soon rule his beloved Russia. As for Mandelstam, Stone Bottom kept his work on his shelves yet dispatched the poet to his death in the Gulag.
Russia is about soul, they say, and you will learn more about the country from Polonsky's beautifully written book than from any narrowly political tome. Some of it can be creepy, notably her pages on the Russian Orthodox Church, crushed by the communists yet once again working hand in glove with the regime.
A belief in Russia's spiritual supremacy over the degenerate West remains rooted in the national psyche, Polonsky tells us. The Slavic Soul finds new forms of expression, whoever the autocrat in power, she says.
Her description of the resentful nationalism now gripping the country is disturbing. Behind the mood lies a strain of officially encouraged mysticism about Staraya Rusa, or Old Russia, the book suggests. Her most chilling example: A new chapel to house a miracle-working icon is being built on the grounds of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB. Spooky stuff, in every sense.
"Molotov's Magic Lantern: A Journey in Russian History" is published by Faber (388 pages, 20 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(George Walden, a former U.K. diplomat and member of Parliament, is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer on the story: George Walden in London at firstname.lastname@example.org.